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Macedonia and the First Balkan War (Part 2)

April 16, 2004


In part 2 of his four-part series on Macedonia and the First Balkan War, historian Carl Savich traces the formation of the Balkan League, in the process uncovering massacres, secret annexes, and other fun stuff for which the region is renowned.

The Balkan League

In April, 1911, the Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, sent a note to Sofia through private channels requesting that Bulgaria and Greece enter an understanding to establish a joint defense of the Christian population in Macedonia.

The Bulgarian prime minister, Ivan Gueshov, was at first reluctant but Turkish atrocities and harsh measures in Macedonia and the failure on the part of Turkey to join up the Bulgarian and Turkish railways as agreed upon forced him to change his mind. The Italo-Turkish War also galvanized support for a conflict with Turkey

On March 13, 1912, the Serbian-Bulgarian treaty was signed by Ivan Gueshov and Serbian prime minister Milovan Milovanovic and by King Peter of Serbia and King Ferdinand of Bulgaria. On May 29, 1912, a treaty between Greece and Bulgaria followed. In late September, a treaty between Montenegro and Bulgaria was signed. On October 6, Montenegro and Serbia signed a treaty that established the four states of the Balkan League.

The Serbian-Bulgarian treaty of March 13, 1913 consisted of two parts, a defensive alliance and a secret annex. In the first part of the agreement, Bulgaria and Serbia agreed to “succor one another with their entire forces in the event of one of them being attacked by one or more States.” The second part of the agreement contained a secret annex that covered the territorial division of Macedonia.

Under the secret annex, Serbia was to receive outright all territory north and west of the Shar Mountains, while Bulgaria was to receive all territory east of the Rhodope Mountains and the Struma River. If no agreement could be reached on organizing the rest of the territory in Macedonia into an autonomous province, then Bulgaria was to receive undisputed possession of all land running from Mt. Golem on the Bulgarian border to Lake Ohrid. The land between this line and the boundary of Serbian-controlled land at the Shar Mountains was deemed a “contested zone”, a demarcation line which the Russian Tsar should determine or delineate as the arbiter.

The Balkan League and the Rise of the Young Turks Movement

The Balkan Result was the result of the failure of the Treaty of San Stefano and the Treaty of Berlin to resolve the issue of Macedonia. Serbia and Bulgaria resolved to solve the Macedonia issue on their own. Will Monroe explained the failure of the Treaty of Berlin: “The treaty of Berlin gave Macedonia back to the Turks.” The Turkish administration in Macedonia maintained the status quo and did not initiate reforms: “The reforms promised to the Macedonians by the treaty of Berlin never materialized.”

The policy of the Ottoman Turkish administration was one of divide and conquer, divide et impera, according to Monroe. Turkish Sultan Abdul-Hamid sought to prevent the emergence of a Macedonian national identity or consciousness: “Throughout the reign of Abdul-Hamid (1876-1909) the use of the word Macedonia was forbidden.” The Turkish province of Macedonia was divided into three administrative districts or vilayets—-Monastir/Bitola, Skopje/Uskub, and Salonika/Thessaloniki.

There were three major Macedonian uprisings against the Ottoman Turkish regime following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78: 1) The Razlovci Uprising of May, 1876; 2) The Kresna Uprising of October, 1878; and, 3) The Ilinden Uprising of August, 1903. On August 2, 1903 (July 20 in the Old Calendar), the Ilinden-Preobrazhensko Uprising was launched on the Orthodox Feast of St. Ilija’s (or Elias), whose goal was to obtain autonomy for Macedonia.

The Central Committee of the IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) proclaimed the rebellion as follows: “The unrestrained violence of the Mohammedans and the systematic oppression by the authorities have driven the Christian population of Macedonia and Thrace to resort to armed self-defense…. We call on the rest of Europe to intervene by way of negotiations in order to resolve the status of the population of Macedonia and Thrace…” The general staff of IMRO declared: “We are taking up arms against tyranny and inhumanity, we are fighting for freedom and humanity.” The Turks deployed 175,000 troops to quell the uprising. The ratio of Macedonian to Turkish forces was 1 to 13- all in all, 26,000 Macedonians to 351,000 Turks. At the start of the insurgency, the Krushevo Republic was established, which lasted for ten days. Led and organized by Nikola Karev, the Macedonian insurgents were able to establish a civil administration in the Krushevo district.

According to the Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Effects of the Balkan Wars, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., in 1914, “there were a thousand deaths and, in the final result, 200 villages ruined by Turkish vengeance, 12,000 houses burned, 3,000 women outraged, 4,700 inhabitants slain and 71,000 without a roof.” Russia and Austria devised and supervised reform measures in Macedonia following the devastation of the uprising.

A consequence of the uprising was the Muerzsteg Agreement of September 30, 1903 between Russia and Austria-Hungary which forced Turkey to implement reforms in Macedonia, including the reorganization of the Turkish police under the guidance and supervision of foreign military and police personnel. Turkey reluctantly accepted foreign intervention and interference in Macedonia. Yet foreign intervention in Macedonia did not resolve the underlying problems.

On July 28, 1908, the Young Turk Movement under Ismail Enver Pasha, Ahmet Cemal Pasha, and Mehmet Talat Pasha seized power in Turkey and formed the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, Ittihad ve Terakki Jemiyeti). “Ottomanization” and assimilation of the population of Macedonia were the goals: “Sooner or later the complete Ottomanisation of all Turkish subjects must be effected, but it was becoming clear this could never be achieved by persuasion, and recourse must be had to force of arms.”

The CUP held a congress in 1910 in Salonika at which it was declared that Turkey is “essentially a Muslim country…All other religious propaganda must be suppressed.” In 1909, 20-30,000 Armenian Christians were massacred in Cilicia in southern Turkey. Following the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1908 by Austria-Hungary in violation of the Treaty of Berlin, Bosnian Muslim and Turkish refugees from Bosnia, mohadjirs, resettled in Macedonia. The Macedonian population opposed the resettlement of Muslims in Macedonia because it represented a policy of “Turkicizing” Macedonia, changing the ethnic and religious balance: “The policy of Turkicizing Macedonia by means of systematic colonization, carried out by the mohadjirs—emigrants, Moslems from Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

The weakening of the IMRO in 1904 allowed Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania to pour guerrillas into Macedonia. In 1907, there were 110 Bulgarian, 80 Greek, 30 Serbian, and 8 Romanian guerrilla groups operating in Macedonia. There were Albanian rebellions from 1909 to 1912. In August, 1912, 15,000 Albanian guerrillas led by Hasan Prishtina and Ismail Kemal seized Skopje. The Albanian insurgents sought to have the Kosovo and Monastir/Bitola vilayets merged to form an autonomous Albanian area, a Greater Albania.

The Albanian, Bosnian Muslim, and Turkish immigrants to Macedonia were blamed for committing massacres in Macedonia: “In Macedonia, the muhadjirs, in conjunction with the Albanian Moslem immigrants, were responsible for the succession of massacres in 1912, such as those of Ishtip and Kotchana, which helped bring about the Balkan alliance.”

In 1912, approximately 800,000 Muslims lived in Macedonia, or one third of the population. There was a large Turkish population in Macedonia, as well as Bosnian Muslims immigrants from Bosnia-Hercegovina, who had resettled in Macedonia from Bosnia when Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia in 1878 following the Congress of Berlin and in 1908 when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia.

In The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913 (1914), Jacob Schurman recounted alleged Turkish atrocities against the Macedonian population: “In one district alone 100 villages were burned, over 8,000 houses destroyed, and 60,000 peasants left without homes.”

Reports of alleged Muslim Turkish atrocities against Christian Macedonians galvanized popular support in the US and Western Europe for the Macedonian population. Invariably, the propaganda or public relations value of the atrocities worked against Ottoman Turkey. Schurman maintained that the Muslim Turks showed “unutterable incapacity to govern their Christian subjects” and for this reason “forfeited their sovereign rights in Europe.”

The massacres in Kotchana and Berane inflamed Slavs and Christians in general in the Balkans and galvanized public opinion against the Ottoman Turkish administration. The centralizing and “Ottomanization” policies of the Young Turks thus backfired and resulted in ever greater resistance and tension in Macedonia.

The Balkan League emerged because the Young Turks wanted to enforce a centralized authority and to retain Turkish control in Macedonia. The League was also a reaction to the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1908, in clear violation of the Treaty of Berlin. The Balkan states also perceived that Turkey was militarily in crisis due to the September 1911 Italo-Turkish war in Libya. In it, Italy attacked Tripoli, the capital of the Ottoman Turkish vilayet in North Africa and the Dodecanese Islands.

The French premier, Raymond Poincare, saw Russia as the main instigator of the First Balkan War: “[I]t is too late to wipe out the movement which she [Russia] has called forth… she is trying to put on the brakes, but it is she who started the motor.” Russian policy was motivated ostensibly by a goal to create a counterweight against Austria-Hungary in the Balkan Peninsula. But the Balkan states themselves were motivated ultimately by the desire to expel Turkey from Macedonia and Thrace.

Leon Trotsky also saw the machinations of the Great Powers in the emergence of the First Balkan War: “The Great Powers—in the first place, Russia and Austria—have always had a direct interest in setting the Balkan people and states against each other and then, when they have weakened one another, subjecting them to their economic and political influence.”

The precursors to the 1912 Serbian-Bulgarian agreement were the Serbian and Bulgarian agreements of 1904 and 1911. The first Bulgarian memorandum was drawn up in 1911 laying out the Bulgarian conditions: “The renewal of the treaty of 1904, mutatis mutandis: instead of reforms we shall ask for autonomy; if that should prove impossible we shall divide Macedonia.” Bulgarian diplomat Dimitar Rizov was the leader of the Macedonians and was one of the first persons to discuss the question with Gueshov.

Rizov was born in Bitola/Monastir and later became the Bulgarian ambassador to Italy. He recalled: “There were several grammar-schools in Bitola: Turkish, Greek, Serbian and Bulgarian. It was all the same to us.” He attended a Serbian grammar-school in Bitola but regarded himself as Macedonian.

Nicholas Hartwig, the Russian Minister in Belgrade “gave most of the credit for the Bulgarian initiative to Rizov, one of the leaders of the Macedonians. King Ferdinand in order to please Austria has always opposed [a treaty with Serbia], and the Bulgarian government out of fear of the revenge of the Macedonian Committee could never reach the decision to make tangible concessions to Serbia in Macedonia. Rizov has now agreed to undertake the responsibility before the Committee and to bring his influence to bear on them.”

Russian diplomacy and foreign policy concentrated on forging a Serbian-Bulgarian alliance. Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, instructed Russian ministers Nicholas Hartwig in Belgrade and Anatol Nekliudov in Sofia to encourage Serbia and Bulgaria to establish closer diplomatic relations. The Russian objective was to counter Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. The Serbian-Bulgarian treaty resulted, however, in war with Ottoman Turkey.

Part 3 of this series will appear tomorrow.


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